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The Portrayal of Asian Men in Cinema
VU BANG NGUYEN- August 19, 2009
It’s the little things that people don’t notice that get me. To the average American TV or film viewer, the fact that the lead actor in the movie 21 wasn’t Asian didn’t cause a blip on America’s radar, but it did with Asian America. The fact that Hiro Nakamura in Heroes never kissed his White girlfriend and had to practically share his Asian girlfriend with a white dude in Shinobi garb was easily overlooked by the average American Heroes fan, but its something Asian America has mentioned in conversations among ourselves. It’s been going on for years in America, from Jet Li not locking lips with his on-screen female lead, Aaliyah, in Romeo Must Die to Jackie Chan having an implied relationship with Jennifer Love Hewitt in The Tuxedo, America isn’t ready for Asian American males to flaunt their sexuality on screen the way their female counterparts do, with a certain degree of fetishizing of course (see every Tia Carrere film ever made).
To many, this tirade is preaching to the choir. But this is not meant for you, this is meant for the countless number of other people out there that think its completely normal for Asian men to shoot with two guns, karate chop a guy, speak in a broken English accent, and show up to a crime scene as an insurance claims adjuster but think its weird to see him kiss a female on the big screen.
To prove my point, I compiled a list of the Top Ten Worst Asian American Actors/Specific Roles from Film and TV (just rolls off the tongue, huh?):
In no particular order:
- Charlie Chan- To Asian Americans what Uncle Tom is to African Americans. The character is effeminate and subservient to Whites and typically played by White actors in Yellow-Face, since there was little blockbuster success when an Asian actor was cast.
- Gedde Watanabe as Long Duk Dong, in 16 Candles. The greatest modern day example of the role an Asian American actor should never portray. Gedde’s career was ruined by the role and it is unlikely he would be allowed to any Asian American film festival in America to this day. Check out the comic artist, Adrian Tomine’s one page comic strip on the impact of Long Duk Dong to children of the 80’s.
- Everyone from Karate Kid Part II- Yuji Okumoto as Chozen plays the hot headed, one-sided, karate-chopping antagonist doesn’t get the girl, doesn’t win in the end, and doesn’t deserve it cause Ralph Macchio plays Daniel-son, the epitome of “Anything the Asian man can do a White man can do better”. Pat Morita as Mr. Miyagi, the Yoda of Karate, created the Karate Master role that would be emulated for generations of films to follow including the atrocious Balls of Fury. Anytime you want to teach a White guy something exotic (ping pong, karate, feng shui), just find an actor to be your Mr. Miyagi. Tamlyn Tomita as Kumiko is one of the first in many Asian American female roles that involve an Asian female lead falling for the white protagonist. It begs the question, is life imitating art, or vice-versa?
- Every Asian Male in Joy Luck Club- A breakdown of all the male characters that hook up with the daughters in the movie (Let’s not even get into Russell Wong and the way he eats watermelons):
· Harold Livotny: Cheap as hell tightwad that insists on separate bank accounts.
· Marvin Chen: Divorced!
· Ted Jordan: Loses a medical malpractic lawsuit which ruins his marriage. He eventually divorces Rose Hsu.
· Rich Shield: The infamous “more soy sauce” white guy. The only male in the film that gets any love.
5. Jackie Chan- Do I even need to go over this one? His American movies are all karate chopping, plotless messes that start with Jackie as a Hong Kong detective and end with his American partner getting all the ass, doesn’t matter if its Owen Wilson or Chris Tucker. Jackie Chan can never get past 1st base in America.
6. Rob Schneider- The man is half Filipino and the only time he plays the race card is when he jokes about his mom being a maid or a whore. And don’t forget his Yellow Face roll in I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry.
7. Masi Oka as Hiro Nakamura from NBC’s Heroes- The moment this guy has a love interest on this show, she gets killed or he teleports away. Give the man a break NBC! Let him hook up with the cheerleader or Veronica Mars, they’re both shorter than him if you’re concerned about height.
8. Margaret Cho (For All American Girl)- Its like every episode was about how she’d never date an Asian guy cause he was an accountant or a doctor or her parents liked him. And then she ends up with Quentin Tarantino, every woman’s dream. I understand you have to make concessions if you’re an Asian American female lead on a TV show, but if you end up with a plot based on every conceivable caricature in an Asian family, maybe you should reconsider and be in an ensemble cast with mixed races, just like in real life!
9. Bobby Lee- All his MadTV skits involve him running around half naked, playing Asian caricatures, or umm, playing more Asian caricatures. His roles are emasculating and even the skit that addresses racist Asian caricatures is offensive.
And if all this commentary seems trivial and dated for you, I’ll bring it up to date with the next Asian American comedic pariah ready to bump Margaret Cho from the pedestal, Number 10 on the list: Ken Jeong.
In The Hangover: the man plays an effeminate, possibly gay Asian mobster with a fobby, pan-Asian accent and screams and shouts about his small penis in the two or three scenes that he’s in. He followed that up with his role as a film within a film star, playing a verbally abusive Japanese husband/father in the star-studded, Judd Apatow directed, Adam Sandler starring movie, Funny People. Completing the Trifecta is his turn as a used car salesman in The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard where he get’s his ass beat for being Asian cause hate crimes are funny.
And to think, this Top Ten list doesn’t even include the White actors that play Yellow Face, like every single David Carradine role, the guy White guy from The Last Airbender, the White guy from Dragonball Evolution, and of course, the most famous Yellow Face role of all: Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Probably the most blatantly racist depiction of an Asian caricature in the history of cinema. The fact that it was a cursory role in an American classic means Mr. Yunioshi will live on for eternity in film school classes, AFI all-time lists, and home DVD collections.
Well I didn’t want to end on a sour note, so I’m going to finish up with my Top 5 Best Asian American Male Actors/Roles List:
1. John Cho in anything other than the No Reservation sitcom (where he was a Chinese Seafood chef).
2. Dustin Nguyen (SeaQuest, 21 Jump Street). The man has had to recently switch to doing action films with karate action, presumably because Hollywood cannot accept an Asian American actor unless he’s got neck chopping capabilities. But 21 Jump Street was some consistent role modeling when I was a kid growing up.
3. B.D. Wong (Oz, Law and Order, Jurassic Park, Father of the Bride): I like him cause he’s always been around and consistently decent.
4. Aaron Yoo: I’ll give him props for his roles in 21, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, and Disturbia cause those weren’t typical “Asian” roles. But I’ll also give him kudos for Rocket Science, even though he played a bowl haircut Asian character, just because it’s a damn good small-time film.
5. Bruce Lee: Nuff said.
6. George Takei: Shirt off, wielding a samurai sword in Star Trek. Badass.
So sad that my “Worst of” list is much longer than my “Best of” list! I’d like to hear all your thoughts, comments, and critiques. But most of all, list off some names of actors/actresses you think I missed.
Check out AzNHeartThrob and Cbruhs on their own blog, www.bicoastalbitchin.com for an Asian American slanted view (pun intended) on politics, pop culture and MTV’s America’s Best Dance Crew.